On the eve of the informal meeting of EU defence ministers, Slovenian Defence Minister Matej Tonin, whose country holds the EU Council Presidency, spoke to EUROPE on Wednesday 1 September about the meeting’s programme and the efforts of his country’s army to combat climate change. (Interview by Camille-Cerise Gessant)
Agence Europe – Afghanistan will be one of the topics of the informal meeting on Thursday. What should the EU do about Afghanistan in terms of defence?
Matej Tonin – Initially it was not planned to talk about Afghanistan at the informal defence meeting, but I asked Mr Borrell’s office that, in view of what has happened, it is obvious and clear that the issue must be tabled.
It is evident more than ever that EU needs to do more for its defence, increase its own capacities to be able to provide security, autonomously.
It was absolutely clear in the case of Afghanistan that we were absolutely dependent on the Americans. When they said they were going to leave Afghanistan, we were in a kind of black hole: some nations wanted to stay, but obviously the big majority were for withdrawal; those who wanted to stay did not have the appropriate capabilities to be there.
So I think that the lesson learnt is clear we—as the European Union—should do more so that we can be autonomous when we talk about such operations, like in Afghanistan.
Slovenia is one of the 14 Member States which support the concept of first entry first. Mr Borrell said that the situation in Afghanistan shown the necessity to have such a force. So how can it be developed? Why is it so important to have this kind of first entry force?
To be able to play a role on the global stage, you need to move fast. And the problem of the European Union is that we have procedures and mechanisms that do not allow us to move fast.
I think that is the main problem that we can and must solve. For example, you mentioned the 5,000-strong first entry force, but in 2018 there was another proposal, called the European Intervention Initiative. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Great Britain wanted to build a special unit that could intervene immediately, but everything stayed on paper.
I think one of the main discussions, which will probably continue, is that we really have to find a solution to prepare mechanisms that allow us to immediately activate a number of units, let’s say, to go anywhere in the world and have peacekeeping missions or other important missions, in the interest of the European Union. I think that is a necessary thing.
So we have many ideas on papers, but nothing on the ground. Is it because the Member States are reluctant about that?
Definitely within the EU, everything depends on the Member States. I hope more Member States, including Slovenia, will see that it is in our interests to form such a unit or mechanism where we will have real forces with the appropriate capabilities and where we can act very quickly. That is the main goal.
That is the main thing we lack and need. Because, as you said, so far some of the proposals—even some of the mechanisms like battle groups—are just very inefficient and not activated.
So I think step one is to create an efficient mechanism with which we can react quickly and step two is to establish and have the appropriate capabilities to be able to work autonomously around the world.
Another subject that will be discussed at the informal meeting is the ‘Strategic Compass’. Why is this document so important?
We expect to see a draft strategy document by autumn. The ‘Strategic Compass’ is important because it provides us with a practical and effective document on the direction we want to take in the coming years. Until now we have had debates about principles, about our wishes, but now the time has come for a concrete document on which we can have negotiations and debates and that will allow the French Presidency of the EU Council to conclude the process and to have a strategic document that will guide us in the next couple of years.
Will this ‘Strategic Compass’ be a document containing broad principles or concrete actions?
The Slovenian position is that it should be more like an action plan, because there are other documents that talk about principles, and they are very good. I assume that we don’t need another document about principles, but we need rather an action book, what is necessary step by step.
Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO. How can cooperation between these organisations be strengthened and how can the alliance with NATO and the EU’s strategic autonomy be managed at the same time?
When we were talking about strategic autonomy, the nations of the Baltic region were afraid that Europe would leave its partners on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but I really don’t understand this concept of strategic autonomy in this way. I see it as a way for Europe to be stronger, more reliable for our allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So cooperation among institutions such as the EU, NATO, and the UN—between institutions that share the same values—is necessary, complementary. I don’t see this as a competition.
Your army will use electric aircraft. Can you give us more information about that? Is the fight against climate change, which has become a NATO priority, also important for the Slovenian army?
The defence sector should do more. Everything that is needed to run the army, all the infrastructure and especially the air force, emits a lot of CO2. That is why we want to develop our air force and defence towards a greener path.
The introduction of electric and environmentally friendly aircraft in our air force is crucial, because many hours are spent training pilots and for that you don’t need the fastest aircraft possible, but the basic airplane. And that is why we see the option of using electric aircraft to train our military.
I signed a special agreement with Pipistrel, a Slovenian company that provides aircraft. We are now in the training phase, before we completely change our fleet of training aircraft with electric aircraft. Our pilots test the electric aircraft to see if they are 100% suitable, suitable for training, etc.